Medieval Life Through “The Canterbury Tales” Characters by Chaucer
Life in the late Middle Ages had numerous characteristic aspects to it. By analyzing the characters of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, readers may sometimes identify common attitudes and experiences of that time. In The Canterbury Tales, three characters satirically embody corresponding medieval life aspects: religion’s perception through the Pardoner, peasant class attitudes through the Miller, and female role in the society through the Wife of Bath.
The Pardoner: Religion
The first insight into medieval life can be seen through the Pardoner’s character in the context of the Church. Despite presenting himself as holy and non-materialistic, the Pardoner gladly accepts material offerings: silver, gold, personal belongings in exchange for writing indulgences which, he claims, will guarantee the entry to heaven (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” lines 703-704; Chaucer, “Fragment VI: The Pardoner’s Tale” lines 906-915). Moreover, he offers anyone willing to see, touch, and witness the relics, but only after receiving the payment (Chaucer, “Fragment VI: The Pardoner’s Tale” lines 906-915). The Pardoner is not ashamed in the least of his profession – he even shares his ‘tricks of trade’ with travel companions along the way (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” line 705). Through all these actions, the Pardoner embodies the institutional corruption in the medieval Church (Horrox 444). Thus, by understanding the author’s mocking portrayal of the Pardoner’s abhorrent behavior, the readers may gain insight into the state of the religious institutions.
The medieval church criticism continues with the ever-expanding list of the Pardoner’s personal sins. The fact that the Pardoner is a crook is clear since he openly admits to preaching with the sole purpose of satisfying his greed (Chaucer, “Fragment VI: The Pardoner’s Tale” line 433). By giving the ingenuine sermon and showing explicitly fraudulent relics only after receiving monetary compensation, he defies the very nature of his preaching (Chaucer, “Fragment VI: The Pardoner’s Tale” line 349). Again, in telling his story, the Pardoner does not hide that he preaches against the very vice that he is guilty of – avarice (Chaucer, “Fragment VI: The Pardoner’s Tale” lines 427-428). For instance, in citing a Latin expression, the Pardoner states that he consistently believes that the root of all evil is greed (Chaucer, “Fragment VI: The Pardoner’s Tale” line 334). The Pardoner’s character masterfully preaching despite all his sins and being unfit for the job represents the Church’s hypocrisy (Horrox 452). Overall, the personification of sins in the form of the Pardoner’s vices presents another way to get an insight into the medieval religious dynamics.
The last aspect of medieval religion that the author satirizes through the Pardoner’s character is its obscurity. The Pardoner is described as characteristically non-masculine, with a high-pitched voice and the lack of facial hair (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” lines 690-691). The narrator goes as far as to question whether the Pardoner was a male or a female (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” line 675). According to da Costa, these body descriptions are intentionally shown as anomalous in the physical nature (28). By describing the Pardoner’s body in so much detail, the author draws readers’ attention to how much of it is hidden from the public. Da Costa further argues that the Pardoner’s body is analogous to a religious relic, in the sense that it is impossible to know what is hidden underneath the layers of fabric (37). The Pardoner’s deceiving and ambiguous body descriptions thus may reflect the lack of transparency and clarity in the medieval Church.
The Miller: Peasant Class
One of the most prominent aspects of life in the medieval world was its separation by classes, and the peasant class is echoed in the narrative by introducing Robyn the Miller. Upon having “the worthy Knight” tell his tale, the Host invites Sir Monk to speak, but the Miller, being utterly drunk, rudely interjects and begins telling his own story (Chaucer, “Fragment I: The Miller’s Tale” line 3109; Chaucer, “Fragment I: The Miller’s Tale” lines 3119-3125). In describing the Miller as drunken, uncourteous, almost primitive, a stereotype of a lowly peasant community emerges in contrast with the ‘worthy’ noblemen. Miller’s physicality is further highlighted in an unflattering contrast with his intellect by detailed feature descriptions, from a wart on his nose to his wide mouth (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” lines 545-559). Moreover, the interjection itself is significant, representing the conflict between the nobility and the peasantry in medieval England (Freedman 372). Interrupting the Knight may reflect the tensions between classes at that time. Hence, the exaggerated realism of Miller’s description provides an insight into the medieval perception of working-class dynamics and their disparity from the nobility.
Distrust of Progress
Another aspect of medieval life that Miller’s character embodies is the characteristic distrust of the common folk in something unfamiliar. Throughout the narrative, the Miller is portrayed in an unflattering light, accused of lechery and theft (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” lines 561-562). His other vices, like dishonesty, are further described as reflecting his profession as a miller (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” lines 561-566). Such a description goes hand-in-hand with the prevalent at the time image of the mill as a token of exploitation and deception and the miller as a fraudulent trickster (Freedman 373). Moreover, Parsons confirms that the fear and distrust of millers stemmed from the society siding against devices they did not understand – machinery like mills were regarded just as deceptive as millers themselves (35). Hence, Miller’s persona description reflects another aspect of peasant class life: the tension and distrust that the majority felt toward the millers in particular.
The Wife of Bath: Female Role
The overall image of Alison the Wife of Bath’s character being sexually frivolous and lustful provides an insight into some of the ways women were viewed in medieval times. The Wife of Bath describes herself as lusty, pretty, rich, young, and unsettled, at least not for her husband (Chaucer, “Fragment III: The Wife of Bath’s Tale” lines 605-606). She even suggests that she could fare even better in life has she been allowed to sell her “belle chose” (Chaucer, “Fragment III: The Wife of Bath’s Tale” lines 447-448). By ‘belle chose,’ the Wife of Bath most likely means her private parts, thus unapologetically stating the information that would usually be unsaid (Bjork 345). However, the sentiment of the narrative is far from supportive of her intentions.
There is much disapproval in the way Alison’s character is described. Chaucer’s account of the pilgrimages in which the Wife of Bath has participated, from Jerusalem to Cologne, stands in this tradition of criticism (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” lines 459-461). This account is surrounded by the narrator’s remarks about the aspects of the Wife of Bath’s appearance that point to her sexual history in the form of a snide commentary (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” line 462). Medieval preachers link manifestations of female pride and hypocrisy to their alleged sexual misbehavior; in their view, women behave, speak, and dress extravagantly not just to show off but to arouse male lust (Karras 324). The overall strong sentiment of judgment around the Wife of the Bath’s sexuality presents a clear ‘snapshot’ of the prevalent societal views at the time.
The Wife of Bath’s character demonstrates the extremes of feminine-self authorization by the medieval standard. For instance, she openly questions the common religious marriage requirements and criticizes the tradition of virgin brides (Chaucer, “Fragment III: The Wife of Bath’s Tale” lines 60-72). Moreover, the Wife of Bath shows vocal resistance to authority like her husband when she gets beaten for tearing a page out of a book (Chaucer, “Fragment III: The Wife of Bath’s Tale” lines 634-636). However, neither of these instances is presented in a tone that would allow for reading the narrative as genuinely supportive. Karras recounts that the honor of a woman as a mother, a wife, and a person was largely dependent on her sexual ‘reputation’ (327). Moreover, women were commonly criticized for scolding and arguing with their husbands; this context allows readers to perceive Alison’s independence negatively (Karras 328). Eventually, Wife of Bath’s character only reinforces misogynist stereotypes of the time, providing an insight into the life of a woman.
The last aspect of the perception of women in the late Middle Ages is clothing. The Wife of Bath’s character having a high social status is evident from her possession and manufacture of fine clothing (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” line 447). Moreover, Alison is acutely aware that she is judged based on her appearance (Chaucer, “Fragment III: The Wife of Bath’s Tale” lines 355-356). In describing the Wife of Bath’s behavior, the mockery of vanity, pride, and lust collide – if someone else’s work surpassed hers, she would instantly be furious (Chaucer, “Fragment I: General Prologue” lines 449-453). Clothing was a highly symbolic attribute in medieval towns – and Alison’s dressing style has moral implications in the eyes of the narrator (Karras 323). The emphasis placed on clothing perhaps reflected England’s emphasis on manufacturing and exporting clothing at the time (Karras 321). However, more importantly, this aspect of Alison’s persona further reflects the judgemental attitudes toward women.
The literary form of the narrative, which introduces each of Chaucer’s pilgrims, possesses several characteristics of medieval class satire – a moralistic mockery of the three broad strata of medieval society: the Church, peasantry, and nobility. These social classes are correspondingly represented by the Pardoner, the Miller, and the Wife of Bath, which represent three various life aspects. The major life aspects covered were attitudes towards religion through the Pardoner, representatives of peasantry one could meet through the Miller, and perception of the female societal role through the Wife of Bath. The Pardoner demonstrates the perceived corrupt, obscure, and hypocritical nature of the religion. The Miller represents one of the types of laborers, highlighting the working-class conflicts with the noblemen and peasant class attitudes. Lastly, the Wife of Bath’s mockery regarding her sexual escapades, combativeness, and clothing reflects the overall misogynistic sentiments of the time. Each character is represented in a thoroughly detailed and highly judgemental narrative, with exaggerated features that allow to approximate some of the life aspects in the late Middle Ages.
Bjork, Robert E. “The Wife of Bath’s Bele Chose.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 53, no. 3, 2018, pp. 336–49.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “Fragment I: General Prologue.” The Canterbury Tales, translated by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook, 1st ed., Hodge & Braddock, 1993, pp. 1–858, Web.
“Fragment I: The Miller’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, translated by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook, 1st ed., Hodge & Braddock, 1993, pp. 3309–3854, Web.
“Fragment III: The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, translated by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook, 1st ed., Hodge & Braddock, 1993, pp. 1–1264, Web.
“Fragment VI: The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, translated by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook, 1st ed., Hodge & Braddock, 1993, pp. 329–968, Web.
da Costa, Alex. “The Pardoner’s Passing and How It Matters: Gender, Relics and Speech Acts.” Critical Survey, vol. 29, no. 3, 2017, pp. 27–47.
Freedman, Paul. “The Miller.” Historians on Chaucer: The “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, edited by S. H. Rigby and A. J. Minnis, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 368–385.
Horrox, Rosemary. “The Pardoner.” Historians on Chaucer: The “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, edited by S. H. Rigby and A. J. Minnis, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 443–459.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. “The Wife of Bath.” Historians on Chaucer: The “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, edited by S. H. Rigby and A. J. Minnis, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 319–333.
Parsons, Ben. “Trouble at the Mill: Madness, Merrymaking, and Milling.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 53, no. 1, 2018, pp. 3–35. JSTOR, Web.